With so many things to do and a lack of time or resources (or both) to do it all, sometimes it can feel like there aren’t enough hours in a day. I know I’m not the only person who has wished for an extra two or three hours before the clock hit 11:59! What makes it even worse, and makes an already busy day even more difficult, is when you just need to concentrate. Now not only do you have to devote your time and attention to yet another task in the day, but you have to do so with your full attention, and all of the mental resources and energy you might have a hand. Unfortunately, this is the life of driven, ambitious, motivated, and dedicated students and professionals. We often put a lot on ours plate and then pile on the pressure to be excellent at everything we do, all the time. I can say this for myself as well, we often do so to the point that we simply feel so overwhelmed with all we have to do that we feel we can’t even afford focus on only one task at a time.
In case (I know the truth, but I’ll let you slide) this is happening to you, here are 5 ways to increase your concentration, focus and productivity at work or school:
One of the best things you can do to improve your concentration is to create several lists of the tasks that you need to do. List A should include the tasks that have a deadline today or tomorrow; List B should include the tasks that need to be completed next week; and List C should include all those non-urgent tasks. One of my favorite books of all time is “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers,” the first version of Stephen R. Covey’s best-selling original “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” first published in 1989. Covey’s son is actually the one who wrote the updated version for teenagers! In both books the authors discuss the difference between tasks that are important in tasks that are urgent. I found this distinction subtle back then, being in middle school, but now I see how essential it is to take all the tasks that you might have in front of you at any given time and make sure that you know which is which, because the two are not interchangeable. The task can be both important and urgent, like a final paper or a hefty work assignment, one but not the other, or neither, like going shopping or watching TV. Tasks that are urgent but not important require our attention immediately, but don’t help us move toward our goals. For instance, a friend calling you or texting you to chat (urgent, not important), while you do research for a work or school assignment that’s due in two months (important, not urgent).
#2: Time Your Emails and Take Your Life Back from the #EmailMonster:
If you live in a 21st-century, it’s almost certain that you are constantly receiving emails. And if in the ‘old’ days the only way you could access it was on your computer, you can now access email on your smart phone, your tablet, your watch, your glasses, shall I go on? I have literally seen friends decide to take a break from their laptop screen, only to flip out their smartphone or tablet and start tapping away at emails. We all simply tend to have our smartphones and tablets with us, even when we deliberately move away from our computers in order to take a break from work; but are unprecedented access to email on those devices means what? There’s work on those too! So, even if you close out of your email client and resolutely stay away from the app as you take a break, you just keep hearing all those notifications and you start thinking that maybe there is some important email arriving, so you go check.
The sad truth is that you probably keep checking your email throughout the entire day, and you may not get one single email that is actually important, as we discussed above. So, make sure that you cut this distraction off at the knees. Just turn off your smartphone or tablet and close your email application on your computer. Just set a timer or alarm to check it once or twice a day. It’s more than enough. Of course, if you’re a first-year associate at a law firm, a bank, or another type of industry that requires responsiveness 24/7, look at my advice as a warning not to get too wrapped up and anxious over your email, or to just make your work phone a separate device so that you know any emails coming in from that one are both important and urgent.
#3: Create Sub-Tasks:
When you have a large task that you need to do, one that makes you feel overwhelmed just at the thought of it, looking at everything that you’ll need to do and the time it will take you, the best thing you can do is to create sub-tasks. Just divide it into different aspects and take care of each one independently. One of my clients was having trouble with the task of applying to graduate schools. From the outside and at the beginning, that process seems like an endless march of paperwork, writing essays/addendums/statements, test taking, begging for recommendations, waiting for those recommendations to be submitted, and then at last, sweating over whether you’ll be admitted. You see what I did there? I took the process of applying to graduate school and broke it down into six (even if just slightly) more palatable steps. When I did that over the phone, saying, “I know it might sound like an endless march of…..,” my client gasped. As she processed what I was saying, she realized that even though it would be a lot of hard work, it would be hard, doable work. Even though the workload hadn’t changed at all, her perception of it did. When you feel yourself becoming anxious or stressed over what you consider huge task, erase that task off of your calendar or agenda, go make a list of all of the sub-tasks that you have to do to complete that one large task, and replace it with them on your planner. Voila!
#4: Declutter Your Workspace:
When most people feel overwhelmed, they tend to be more disorganized and just keep putting new piles of paper on their desks. One of the things that will really help you improve your productivity is to clean or de-clutter your desk regularly. When you have 1,000 papers and files spread all over your desk, you’ll immediately lose focus, and begin thinking about how you need to clean your desk, the contents of some of those papers, and the tasks contained within which does nothing but distract you from the task at hand, or any other number and combination of distracting thoughts. Even if you might think you are the exception to this rule, the one person who actually works better on a disorganized desk, go ahead and trust me on this one. Clean your desk and come back and comment on this post about your experience, and whether you were more productive on a clean desk than ever before!
#5: Plan Your Days:
Yes, I know that plans don’t always work out the way we might want. However, without one, we won’t have a clear picture of how we’ll get to our final goal. You wouldn’t take a road trip without a map, would you? (If you would, that’s another one for the comments, because that kind of spontaneity and creativity can be put to use in a million ways that aren’t this one!) You don’t always need a color-coded, typed, highlighted or extremely detailed plan. Just take a pen and a piece of paper, and make a list of what comes to mind that you need to get done in the next 24 hours. Establish what you need to do today, and don’t consider it one of a longer list, just stay focused, maybe jotting down larger tasks to be broken down, or assignments with other due dates. For the next 24 hours though, that list is your mini-map to your final destination!
To sum up, it is important to our success that we don’t just burn ourselves out by working hard, and not working smart. If you’re one of those people, like me, who always has a lot on their plate, it’s important to know what needs your time and energy at any given point, so that you’re not wasting time on an urgent task that could have been ignored in favor of an important task that needed your attention. These are the five steps that I know always save time and save energy on my part, so that I can give my best to my colleagues, my classmates, my teams, my professors, and my family. I hope that you take these steps to heart and see what a huge difference it makes to work hard and work smart!